Accessory Apartments and Funding Roulette

May 24, 2004, 12:00 AM PDT

By Patrick H. Hare

Studies show that accessory apartments could provide very large numbers of affordable rental units in good neighborhoods, without subsidy or rent controls. These ideas deserve increased research and development funding, not spins on the wheel of funding roulette.

Photo: Patrick HareMore elderly people means more empty nests, typically big ones bought when the kids were at home and income was high. Many empty nesters are house-rich and cash-poor. So are many divorced people. Most do not want to leave their oversized homes. One solution is rental income from accessory apartments, separate rental units created from the surplus space in single-family homes.

A web of advocates and researchers came together around accessory apartments in the 1980s, and came apart in the 1990s. There was too little funding for the right projects, and too much for the wrong ones.

Most funding sources want new ideas to have the endorsement of some "establishment" institution. Finding the few that don't among thousands is a grunt of proposal-writing roulette, played against time and bad odds. Then, as soon as a new idea becomes acceptable to funding sources, others join the few pioneers at the roulette table, and the odds get worse. For the others, improving the odds is simple: keep your funding contacts crisp and submit as many easily-written proposals as possible, which means as little heavy lifting of new ideas as possible, which means, innocently or not, lifting other people's new ideas.

Research and development (R&D) on accessory apartments is badly needed. For example, even though homeowners with accessory apartments report high satisfaction levels, few owners install apartments, even where they are legal. We need to know why. As I write I hear some readers innocently thinking, "I could get that research funded for my department, institute, etc."

Their thinking may be innocent, but the game isn't. Playing roulette against your own ideas, with masochistic odds, is not fun. Publishing your ideas increases the interest of funding sources, but may increase the competition even more.

To improve the odds, pioneers on an idea could produce their own "endorsement document." To start with, it could provide a resume for the pioneers and their experience with the idea, so the people who have done the heavy lifting on a new idea are not bypassed for funding without good reason.

Also, a single funding proposal, like a single travel brochure, can rarely make a new idea or a new destination "cool" to people with money. An endorsement document could. It would detail the benefits of the core idea, include comparisons to other solutions, have quotes from recognized experts, and be distributed widely to funding sources via notices and a website. The "endorsement document" would improve the odds for pioneers, and for their ideas.

In the 80s, Fannie Mae put out coast-to-coast press releases on how it was setting aside hundreds of millions of dollars for accessory apartment loans through local banks. Local banks had no clue how to market the loans. The program made about three loans in its first year, and disappeared. I am certain Fannie Mae put out the word that, "Accessory apartments are a nice idea, but we tried, and they just don't work."

Once an idea does become "legitimate," or close to it, funding sources and Fannie Mae-types often race to plant their flag on it. Frequently the result is unsuccessful projects, with reports that blame the idea and absolve the institution. An "endorsement document" should include harsh reviews of projects like Fannie Mae's.

The "endorsement document" should also include an R&D framework to help funding sources choose projects that are needed. An R&D framework for accessory apartments should be debated and updated annually. The Cooperative Research Programs of the Transportation Research Board do something similar for transportation research.

The R&D framework will give funding sources a basis for judging how well projects advance thinking on a new idea that is suddenly "cool." The endorsement document, with a well-supported presentation of the core idea, a framework for R&D, and pioneer profiles, will improve the odds for pioneers and for needed projects. An organization would be needed to find funding for and produce the endorsement document.

If such organizations are not founded by pioneers on new planning ideas, too many of the scant resources for planning research will go to the "crispy-contacts" types who ride the funding edge of new ideas, picking up the vocabulary and pasting it on their letterheads. The San Francisco Development Fund jumped into accessory apartments for about 2 years, and then jumped back out. The Fund's inexperience resulted in mis-allocated costs and mistaken conclusions. Its widely distributed project report, "Small Solutions," discredited accessory apartments for most funding sources and policy makers.

Five studies show how accessory apartments provide affordable rental units with no subsidy or rent control. Most are integrated into good neighborhoods. Roughly half go to family members for little or no rent. Accessory apartments could provide very large numbers of affordable units, in good neighborhoods, with no subsidy. They deserve R&D funding. The accessory apartment idea should not be ground under again by funding roulette.

Patrick H. Hare is recognized in the USA and Canada as the leading expert on accessory apartments. He has written many studies and books on zoning and other accessory apartment issues, and lectures and consults widely on amending zoning and promoting installations. He has accessory apartments in his homes in Washington, DC , and Cornwall, CT. He can be reached at [email protected].


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